Novelist's attack on U.S. archives called exaggerated, inaccurate

  This article originally ran in the University Times, Volume 35• Number 5• April 3, 2003, by Bruce Steele  
Dr. Cox, Richard J.   Photo credit: Jim Burke,CIDDE.
Novelist and literary essayist Nicholson Baker provoked a bibliographical brouhaha two years ago when he accused American libraries of shortsightedly destroying books and newspapers -- precious, irreplaceable pieces of our printed heritage --after reformatting (microfilming or digitizing) them.
Baker's allegations, published in his book "Double Fold" and in The New Yorker, were eloquent, caustic and convincing. Widely reviewed in A-list publications such as The New York Times Book Review, "Double Fold" was praised as the archival equivalent of Rachel Carson's environmentalist classic, "Silent Spring."

But according to Richard J. Cox, a professor in Pitt's School of Information Sciences, the great difference between those two books is that Carson's "was long overdue and addressed serious problems confronting the future of the world. Nicholson Baker's book, however, was full of exaggerated and inaccurate information."

To refute Baker and defend the preservation practices of America's research libraries, archives and historical societies, Cox wrote "Vandals in the Stacks? A Response to Nicholson Baker's Assault on Libraries" (Greenwood Press, 2002).

"Fundamentally, Baker believes that everything should be saved, and in its original format," Cox told the University Times. "An archivist knows that only a very small percentage of materials can be saved, and not even those can all be preserved in their original format.

"Baker packs his book with footnotes. He presents 'Double Fold' as a history of library preservation when, in fact, he jumbles things around chronologically. When Baker talks about deterioration of microfilm, for example, he presents it as a continuing problem when, in fact, it was resolved a long time ago.

"Some of the disasters that Baker cites -- and some comical, inane things were done in the name of library-archival preservation -- were part of a natural learning curve."

Baker ridicules, for example, the Library of Congress's 1970s experiments with removing paper-destroying acids from books en masse. "Essentially, they shoved thousands of books at a time into big chambers and conducted tests with various chemicals," Cox explains. Fires and explosions not infrequently resulted.

"Baker makes fun of those things," says Cox. "He makes library preservationists look like Keystone Kops. What he doesn't understand, because he's not an archivist or a librarian, is that in the context of the time, given the immensity of the problem, the Library of Congress experiments were perfectly legitimate."

Cox has jousted with Baker on stage as well as in print. Their face-to-face showdown occurred during a May 2001 conference at Simmons College in Boston. Cox had heard that Baker would be speaking there. Eager to match wits with his adversary in front of an audience of library students and professionals, Cox asked through an intermediary (one of his former doctoral students whom Simmons had hired) whether Baker would debate him.

Baker accepted the challenge. The event drew some 300 librarians and archivists, triple the normal attendance, Cox says proudly. "Afterward, several of my colleagues came up to me and said things like: 'In the past, I've disagreed with everything you've written and said within the profession. But today, I agreed with you.'"

Cox found Baker to be "a thoughtful, gracious, interesting guy. He's not an academician but he could pass for one physically. He's tweedy and tall, with a beard."

Months before they met in person, Baker had interceded to prevent Cox's "Vandals in the Stacks?" -- despite its merciless attacks on his own positions -- from being, in effect, censored.

Cox's book had gone through its final editing and was about to go into production when Baker's publisher, Random House, informed Cox that they were denying him permission to quote from Baker's "Double Fold." Doing so would not be in their author's best interests, Random House declared.

"Through a series of efforts, I reached Mr. Baker directly and he was surprised to hear about this decision by his publisher," Cox writes in his introduction to "Vandals." "As I suspected, [Baker] preferred to be quoted rather than paraphrased, and he welcomed the continuation of our debate. Readers will note that Nicholson Baker is generously quoted in this book, and I thank him for this."

Cox and some other faculty at Pitt's School of Information Sciences have made Baker's "Double Fold" assigned reading in their classes. "It's a great book to use because he's so wrong and yet he says it all so well," Cox explains, with a laugh. "It really makes students think because by the time they've finished reading 'Double Fold' they're convinced by Baker's arguments. That gives me the opportunity to go back with my students to look more closely at those arguments."

Not that Baker is completely wrong, Cox allows.

"Are some institutions making silly decisions about microfilming and digitizing, foolishly tossing away original materials? Sure," Cox says. "Not big institutions, but I'm sure there are local libraries that buy a Dell computer and a scanner, and they think they can now scan quality images and destroy originals.

"Baker is also right in arguing that the value of a book or newspaper is not just in its informational content, that's it's also an artifact. Where he and I disagree is that I say: Okay, but we can't preserve every printed artifact. Whereas, Baker maintains that we have to preserve at least one copy of every book or newspaper."

To illustrate his own argument in class, Cox draws a large circle on his lecture room board. Then he draws a tiny dot in a corner of the circle. If the circle represents the universe of printed materials potentially worth cataloguing, the dot is roughly proportionate to America's repositories for such materials, Cox tells students.

Next, Cox draws a slightly larger dot within the circle. This dot, he explains, represents the amount of printed material that American librarians and archivists can ever hope to physically inspect.

Then, Cox points out that a circle large enough to encompass all of the written information available in print and on the Internet (including so-called "deep web" materials that elude search engines and web crawlers) would be at least as big around as Pitt's Information Sciences Building.

"These illustrations help students to understand that we need to set criteria and develop strategic plans for preservation," Cox says. "We can't preserve one copy of everything, as Baker would have us do."

Cox startles some students when he holds up his own "Vandals in the Stacks" as a nonessential artifact.

"I ask them, 'Do we really need to preserve this?'" says Cox, gripping the dark green-and-black, gold-embossed volume. "Look at it. It's a standard, professional publication. There's nothing intrinsically valuable about this. Could it not be scanned, saved as a digital text, mounted on the web? Do we have to preserve it in its original format? The answer is: No."

Ironically, Baker would say: Yes.